The Hazards of 19th Century Coal Mining

Industrial work during the nineteenth century was often hazardous. Nowhere was this situation more true that in coal mining. By the 1860s some anthracite coal mines in northeastern Pennsylvania had reached as much as 1,500 feet into the earth. Miners reached these depths with technologies that, by later standards, would seem primitive.

These desire to excavate coal at such depths posed special problems to mine owners. The coal operators needed engineering expertise among their employees in order to dig deep mines. There were no professional mining engineers at this time--it was an expertise not yet formally developed--so the operators turned to skilled miners from Wales, England, and Scotland, men who had developed expertise through practical experience. These miners helped construct the deep mines and dug and blasted the coal from the seams deep under the earth's surface.

There were two big engineering problems in mining coal underground:
  • A system to drain water from the mine
  • A system to ventilate the mine and to provide fresh air to the miners. A special problem in coal mines was the methane (a gas) that sometimes accompanied coal, and which could--and too often did--catch fire and explode. 
Andrew Roy was one of the expert coal miners who migrated from Britain to work in American mines. Roy worked in the bituminous coal fields in Ohio, and became a leader of the miners and a leader of their efforts to build a coal miners union. Roy was self-educated, a veteran of the Civil War, and an unusual man in that he became active in the mine safety movement among the miners and eventually became Ohio's first State Inspector of Mines. Roy wrote:

All mines have water in them. In many drift mines, particularly in those in which the workings extend to the rise of the strata, the water is discharged by gravitation. In slopes and shafts natural drainage is impossible, and the waters of the mine must be pumped or lifted out by steam power.

Andrew Roy, The Practical Miner's Companion; or, Papers on Geology and Mining in the Ohio Coal Field (Columbus: Westbote Printing Company, 1885): 97

Steam power was necessary to operate pumps because electric power was unavailable. Electricity was first introduced in Ohio's coal mines in 1889, for instance, about the time when electric power was beginning to have industrial applications.

The same situation obtained with ventilation. Without electric fans, some other method of ventilating the mine was necessary. The answer was the ventilating furnace. Quite literally, early coal mines had a furnace at the bottom of a shaft. The furnace created a draft, and the draft ventilated the mine.

The ventilating furnace had a separate shaft, often lined with wooden timbers and planks. There were ventilating shafts and trap doors to provide and control the draft of fresh air that the heat of the furnace delivered.

This 1877 drawing shows an air funnel from a ventilating furnace.
Both engineering problems posed a danger to the miners. If the drainage or pumping system broke down, the mine might flood. More dangerous, however, was the danger that the ventilating furnace would ignite mine timbers deep in the earth, and the resulting fire consume the mine's entire oxygen supply and suffocate the miners. This is exactly what happened in the great Avondale disaster of 1869, perhaps the greatest industrial disaster up to that time in the United States.